Cameron Esposito on standup comedy: ‘It’s a rock show, at the end of the day’

'I don’t think about failure as an option.'

Feb 29, 2020, 9:46 am*



Alicia Eler

If there were a gay lady comedy version of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, it would most definitely be written by L.A-based comedian Cameron Esposito.

A lot has happened to the Chicago-born Esposito since moving to the Best Coast, including getting engaged and married to fellow queer comic Rhea Butcher, making grand appearances on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and Conan, and releasing her 2014 comedy album Same Sex Symbol. On March 24, Esposito follows up these successes with her first one-hour special, Marriage Material, which will premiere on NBCUniversal’s streaming site Seeso.

Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, Marriage Material was shot in Chicago just days before her wedding to Butcher. For this hour of high-energy comedy, she digs into her drawer of gay teen girl memories full of locker rooms and sleepovers, but also addresses gun control and her feelings about gay marriage.

Esposito isn’t stopping at standup, though. The comedian recently announced that she will be working with You’re the Worst creator Stephen Falk (Orange Is the New Black, Weeds) on a still-untitled FX show starring herself, which will follow the lives of two sisters: one queer and one straight. Esposito tweeted that the show will not feature the tiresome themes of lesbians who are either pregnant, cheating by sleeping with men, or dead.Esposito will also be starring with Butcher in a Seeso series called Take My Wife, premiering in summer 2016, and acting in Garry Marshall’s Mother’s Day with Julia Roberts and Jennifer Aniston. We caught up to talk more about queerness, comedy, the married gay lady life, and all the fun stuff that makes Hollywood what it is.

Who were your comedic influences growing up?

I don’t know that I have comedic influences growing up. I wasn’t into comedy before I was doing it. I was raised in an area where I never went to see standup. I didn’t watch it on TV. I know there are comics like this, but sometimes I’ll hear comics be like, ‘I was 4 years old and…’ But yeah, that just wasn’t me. I was really into sports. I was really into God. I was super Catholic. I wasn’t really aware of comedy.

When did you first discover comedy? What made you decide to go into a comedy career? You have a sort of theatrical, highly performative edge to your comedy, so I wonder if you did theater growing up?

When I was in college, I joined the improv troupe at my school. It was kind of a hard thing to get into; they only took a certain number of people each year, more spots, you’re in for life thing, and Amy Poehler had been in the same company and went to the school [Boston College] that I went to. At the time I was auditioning and getting into it, she was just breaking through on SNL. I think that’s really the first person that I felt some connection to in terms of, ‘You could do this.’ I didn’t know that comedy was a job, or something people did. I auditioned on a whim because my friend thought I was funny. I remember that I went straight from rugby practice to the audition. I was covered in mud and still wearing my cleats. I got in, and it was one of those things that actually required a lot of dedication. We rehearsed for hours a week. Once I was in, it seamlessly became a big part of my life. After college, I got my first job doing improv professionally. I got cast about six months later in the biggest improv theater in Boston in terms of how they pay, kinda like the Second City of Boston. So I was 22, and had never taken an improv class, and just sort of followed some leads and I think I was charismatic, and what you were talking about, I have that more performative element. I didn’t have the training to support those jobs, and I ended up getting fired. I was 22 and had done all the comedy stuff I had to do in Boston, so then I moved back in Chicago.

You’ve been in L.A. only a few years, and have had a lot of great successes! What’s the shift been like, coming from Chicago and carving out a voice for yourself in L.A.?

I think on the inside it has just felt like work, and a natural progression. I’ve always had this experience that it takes a lot of work and I fail and get fired and do the next thing. I think that’s unusual. A lot of people work hard and that never becomes the thing that happens for them. I’m kind of a tireless person. It’s part of my personality when it comes to work. I don’t think about failure as an option. It’s just how I was raised. My problem is the other thing: I’m like a laser—someone needs to slow me down or I burn out. The laser focus really pays off in Los Angeles. I think people think of L.A. as this flighty city, where everyone is lunching all the time. There is a baseline element of professionalism and business that people don’t talk about as much. If you can plug into that, if you’re the kind of personality that can show up and almost can’t see failure, this is a great place.

I was thinking about your Seeso one-hour special, and the other performances of yours I’ve seen from back in the Chicago days and then back to Riot L.A. last year, and you always have such a strong stage presence. You’re very physical with your gesturing and your facial expressions—it feels like an intense performance to me. So I’m wondering if there’s anything you do to manage your emotions, specifically on stage?

I think about rock stars. I think about my breathing a lot. If you’re performing a special, you’ve done that material a bunch of times, as an hour. So it’s almost like a background program that you’re running, where the words are just coming out and you can think about other things, and how you’re going to move your body and when, and which words to emphasize. I think about all that stuff pretty deliberately. It’s a rock show, at the end of the day. Bowie is just… that’s it for me. He’s it for me, in terms of what do you want to do in the world. I think comics used to perform that a little bit more often, like back in the ’80s. It’s almost like an Eddie Murphy way of performing, but I think the trend toward being a little more personal in comedy has gotten comics away from that.

I have a question that’s a bit more off-the-cuff. I’m wondering if you have any theories about why there are so many queer women comics?

I don’t know that there are more queer women doing standup now than there used to be. I think it’s in the same proportion. It’s actually just a few women, but we stand out because we’re not straight white men. The actual numbers are really small. There’s Wanda Sykes, Rosie, Ellen… there is a tradition of queer women in this field, but the actual numbers are small.

Women are taught to be quiet if they would like to attract men. Queer women don’t have to deal with that the same way, so it’s a little bit different. I know that my friends who would like to date men who are in this field have a hard time finding men who aren’t threatened by the women in their lives speaking up. This is true for women in any field who have forward momentum. The same could be said of [a] CEO. It’s about putting yourself out there as authority.

Let’s talk about Marriage Material. Where’d the idea come from?

It’s a one-hour special. You just do an hour. Then you record it. Then you distribute it, and then you start writing your next hour. My last one was Same Sex Symbol, which came out in 2014. Then I toured it. After going through every city, that material goes away. So then you start working on your next hour. As I was writing my next hour, marriage equality came to the U.S. and I was getting married. For me, comedy ends up being about things that are happening in my life. So the great thing about doing that sort of standup is that there’s always something happening.

I remember when you and Rhea started dating back in Chicago. What’s it like dating, and now being married to, another comedian?

It’s really challenging because we are a small business and the business is ourselves. A lot of families have a small business. It’s hard to mix the stress of survival with having a partner that you’re putting half of that pressure on. But it’s also so awesome because being a comic is a very specific experience, being a woman in comedy is so specific, and being a gay woman in comedy is an extremely specific experience. I have someone in my life who always understands what I am talking about. Rhea is just such a smart person and such a good joke writer and good comic.

Would you say that you’re a political comic, or you’re just speaking your mind, or when you’re a queer woman the personal is political no matter what?

For me, there are so many conscious choices I make for doing standup—how to stand, and what my hair should look like. Material-wise it feels like less of a constant choice. It’s just always what has naturally come out of my mouth. I know that some people write jokes and they’re just jokes about a national conversation, or observing them from afar and commenting, and that’s not what I am doing. I do think I’m political and I don’t know how that happens. I think sometimes when you’re living your life every day as a queer woman, it just happens. People are going to ask questions and you’ve gotta be ready.

Illustration by Max Fleishman 

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*First Published: Mar 24, 2016, 10:00 am